ERBIL, Iraq—In a country beset by strife since its birth and facing its third major war in nearly 23 years, Mohammad Qadir Mohammad and other weapons dealers should be enjoying a bull market.
But these are bearish times at the only legal arms bazaar in the largest city of northern Iraq's rebel Kurdish enclave.
Despite the threat of turmoil and an uncertain future—usually a winning combination for gun traders—business is bleak.
"I acquired it two days ago, but no one is buying," lamented Mohammad, 38, gesturing at his sole offering, a battered Kalashnikov assault rifle hanging by a hook from his stall like a moldering leg of lamb. "Business has never been this bad."
In many ways, the downturn at the muddy, garbage-strewn lot on Erbil's southwestern fringe reflects the economic and psychological strains that have afflicted the Kurds' self-ruled safe haven amid the prospect of war.
Although arms prices have fallen as much as 50 percent in recent months, few people have the cash to buy weapons. Money is being hoarded for fear that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could unleash chemical weapons, triggering a mass exodus to the mountains or to Iran or Turkey.
"A weapon is considered by people as a luxury," said Ahmed Rasool, 35, who scratches out a living as a middleman. "So when people are rich they will try to buy guns. When they are not, they won't."
The dismal sales underscore a more significant point: the high hopes most people are placing in President Bush's promises of a better life after the ouster of Saddam, who has oppressed the Kurds and others for decades.
"If we have democracy and if Saddam is overthrown, why should we need guns?" reasoned Ahmed. "There will be more jobs, civilian jobs for us."
Weapons have long played a pivotal role in the history and culture of the enclave under the control of ethnic Iraqi Kurds, a slice of land the size of Vermont with a population of 3.7 million.
Invasions, revolts against foreign and domestic rulers, ethnic and religious strife and political oppression have roiled the region for centuries, giving guns an important place in Kurdish society, especially as a means of settling feuds in the deeply rooted tribal system.
Well-oiled bolt-action rifles dating to the end of Ottoman rule in 1918 can still be found for sale, as can Turkish, British, German and Soviet weapons left over from World War II.
The region is flush with modern small arms bought on the international black market, captured from Saddam's forces or supplied by the United States, Turkey, Iran or other foreign patrons of the Kurds' periodic uprisings against Baghdad.
An antique shop in the city of Sulaimaniyah sells several Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns, apparent remnants of the arms that Israel supplied to a failed Kurdish revolt against Saddam in the 1970s.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which run quasi-democratic halves of the enclave, have taken some steps to get weapons off the streets. But both have large militias and allow even the smallest political parties to maintain armed squads.
The KDP opened the Erbil arms market in 1997 in a bid to reduce the number of guns in the city. In theory, anyone can sell a weapon to a dealer there, but only KDP fighters or people with KDP-issued permits can buy them.
The buyers' names and the weapons' serial numbers are recorded in a book.
"Only two people have sold weapons today," Juma Muhsin Hussein, the bazaar's KDP-appointed manager, said recently, pointing to entries in his log.
In practice, however, the system appears leaky. While a foreigner was touring the bazaar, a dealer was quietly tempting the visitor's driver with an automatic pistol.
Juma also said that only pistols, rifles and ammunition could be sold. But several of the grimy cinderblock stalls featured rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades among the used guns and ammunition from Iran, the United States, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Kalashnikovs sell for about $120. Pistols are more expensive, because they're more convenient to carry. An Iraqi-made 9 mm Tariq pistol costs nearly $250, and an Italian-made 9 mm Baretta goes for $850.
The huge numbers of weapons in Kurdistan and elsewhere in Iraq could pose a problem for U.S. occupation troops, especially if Saddam's departure takes the lid off ethnic and religious tensions.
The problem could be compounded if hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers throw away their weapons and surrender to invading American forces.
That possibility is a major reason that business at the Erbil arms bazaar has been so poor, weapons dealers said. According to the prevailing logic, the potential deluge of arms will severely depress prices, making guns affordable to just about anyone.
If U.S. forces are unable to prevent political, religious and ethnic turmoil, weapons sales will skyrocket. But if they can help bring stability to a land that has rarely known it, there will be little use for weapons, no matter what the price.
Some people question whether the leaders of Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds and other minorities can achieve their professed goal of building a democratic federation.
"Solving tribal or social problems with guns will not be ended by the coming of the Americans," said Rebin Hardi, a commentator on social and cultural affairs.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Iraq+armsbazaar